New rules work in favor of Notre Dame men's basketball

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A few final locker-room reminders are passed amongst players in the moments before the Notre Dame men’s basketball team takes the floor for another Atlantic Coast Conference contest.

Stay aggressive.

Don’t settle.

Attack.

Riding a two-game league win streak, Notre Dame (17-7; 8-4 ACC) has followed those instructions to near-perfection of late and will need to do so again Saturday against No. 13 Louisville (19-5; 8-3) at sold-out Purcell Pavilion.

Coming off the Feb. 3 loss at Miami (Fla.), something had to change for the better for Notre Dame, which was staring at games against then-No. 2 North Carolina and surging Clemson within a critical 48-hour window. The Irish found some good offensive flow in South Florida, but too often seemed to settle for perimeter shots instead of diving into attack mode and driving. In a nine-point loss, they made eight trips to the foul line.

In a year when the game has been called tighter than ever by officials, who have been charged with enforcing stricter rules to allow more freedom of movement and not as much clutching and grabbing and holding and bumping, the Irish had to make sure to make those rules work in their favor.

They really have the last two games.

Since those eight trips to the foul line, Notre Dame has shot a staggering 63 free throws. That includes 38 attempts and 31 makes, both school records for an ACC game, in the victory seven days ago over North Carolina. Two nights later, Notre Dame went 21 of 25 from the foul line to hand Clemson its first home league loss.

The Irish spent a chunk of non-league play figuring out just how to play under the tighter rules. Calls that were nowhere near fouls were suddenly infractions. It left some Irish dazed and confused wondering just how little they could get away with on the defensive end. But it also clued them in that the rules could also swing in their favor.

As the Irish have worked deeper into their league schedule, they’ve made it more not to settle early for perimeter shots but to drive, to probe and to attack. That forces officials to enforce the new rules.

“You get one step on somebody and bumped or hand-checked or something, it’s going to be a foul,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia, who’s nearly automatic from the free throw line (27-of-29, 93.1 percent) in ACC play. “You figure if you can just attack, you’re going to get some calls and you’re going to get free points.”

Notre Dame has collected those free points like candy. A program that has long carried the sometimes off-base reputation of being little more than 3-point shooters, the Irish have embraced full-out attack mode.

Vasturia already has set career highs for free throws attempted and made in league play. He has plenty of company. Fellow junior guard Demetrius Jackson is shooting 84.8 percent (39-of-46) in league play and has tied his career best for ACC free throws made. Sophomore Bonzie Colson has mirrored Jackson’s conference numbers (39-of-46; 84.8 percent) and has career bests for attempts and makes. Junior V.J. Beachem meandered through the non-league as a spot-up shooter, but has since attacked the rim. After going 2-of-7 from the foul line in 12 non-league games, Beachem is 15-of-20 (75 percent) in 12 league games.

Then there’s freshman guard Rex Pflueger. He never shot a free throw while getting mere mop-up minutes in November and December. Now a key member of the rotation, Pflueger is 18-of-19 (94.7) in ACC play.

“All those guys attack the basket,” coach Mike Brey said. “We’re driving the ball more. We’re playing differently.”

Overall from the foul line, Notre Dame is shooting 73.2 percent in 24 games. That ranks fourth in the ACC. Its 471 attempts rank 11th. In league play, the Irish are connecting on 78 percent (second in the ACC) while their 241 attempts in 12 league games rank sixth.

“We’re going to score when we get there; we’re going to knock them down,” said Vasturia. “So we ought to try and get there as much as possible.”

Twelve non-league games saw Notre Dame shoot at least 25 free throws only once – in the season opener. In 12 league games, Notre Dame has shot at least 25 free throws in five games. All have been wins. The Irish have shot 15 or fewer free throws four times in league play. Three of those have been losses.

Attack the basket with regularity, and something good usually happens.

“We’re not relying on the jump shot,” Beachem said. “Sometimes you just have to put your head down and go. We know we can get to the basket, get fouled or make somebody help.

“It’s something we’re trying to do as much as we can.”

It’s something the Irish know they have to do against the relentless, sometimes suffocating defense they’ll face Saturday. Ranked second in the league in team defense (60.3 ppg.) and third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (89.7) which ranks teams for points per 100 possessions, Louisville likes to pressure teams over all 94 feet before falling back into a 2-3 matchup zone with man principles. The last time Notre Dame faced a zone, last month at Syracuse, attack mode was but a rumor. The Irish had trouble deciphering when and where and to whom the ball should go before finishing 41.8 percent from the floor 10-of-16 (62.5 percent) from the foul line in a 15-point loss.

Having to again handle a team that has size and length and athleticism and likes to zone got Jackson to thinking about last year’s meeting between the teams. On that night at the KFC Yum! Center, Notre Dame paid little attention to the Louisville pressure and just did what it does – run its efficient, effective offense (Circle) and attacked.

The Irish finished 20-of-25 from the foul line in a 71-59 game it led from nearly start to finish.

“We just kind of ran our regular stuff,” Jackson said. “We didn’t overthink it, didn’t overanalyze it.

“We just want to be us, do what we do.”

And keep attacking.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Driving the ball and forcing officials to implement the new rules that give offensive players more freedom of movement has worked out well of late for Steve Vasturia and Notre Dame.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

WHO: Notre Dame (17-7 overall; 8-4 ACC) vs. No. 13 Louisville (19-5; 8-3).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TICKETS: None. The game is a sellout.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Freshman Donovan Mitchell scored 17 points, one shy of his career high, and sophomore guard Quentin Snyder added 12 in a 72-65 loss Monday at Duke. The Cardinals trailed by 15 points in the first half and shot 56 percent in the second. It was coach Rick Pitino’s 1,000th career college game. … Louisville announced Feb. 4 that it will not participate in postseason because of self-imposed punishment stemming from an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations. … Louisville also has league losses to Clemson and Virginia and non-league losses to Kentucky and Michigan State. The Cardinals have yet to lose two in a row. … The Cardinals are 3-2 on the road in league play. … Louisville averages 78.4 points per game and allows 60.3. … The Cardinals were picked in preseason to finish seventh in the ACC. They were unranked to start the season but have jumped to a season-best 13th. … Louisville leads the ACC in scoring margin (+19.0), field goal percentage defense (.378) and rebounding margin (+9.5) and ranks second in the league for scoring defense (60.3), 3-point field goal percentage defense (.307), blocks (5.1) and turnover margin (+2.75). … According to kenpom.com. Notre Dame ranks No. 1 in the nation for adjusted offensive efficiency (124.6) while Louisville’s defense is No. 3 (89.6). … Louisville leads the all-time series 20-13. Notre Dame is 7-6 at home. … This is Louisville’s first visit to Purcell Pavilion as a member of the ACC and first visit since Notre Dame’s 104-101 five-overtime victory Feb. 9, 2013. … This is the only regular-season meeting between the teams. … Notre Dame has scored at least 80 points in three of its last four league games (all wins). Louisville has allowed at least 80 points only once (Virginia Tech). … If the season ended today, Notre Dame would finish fourth in the ACC and receive one of four double-byes in the ACC Championship. … Notre Dame was picked in preseason to finish fifth. … This is the final home game of February for the Irish, who are 12-1 at home, 5-1 in league play. … Notre Dame gets six days off following this game before returning to action Feb. 20 at Georgia Tech.

WORTH QUOTING: “We don’t want to get caught up so much in driving it that we’re rushing ourselves. We have to be ourselves offensively – stay patient, reverse the ball and get teams out of position. That’s when our drives open up.”

-Notre Dame junior guard V.J. Beachem on staying aggressive against Louisville’s 2-3 matchup zone.